Friday, August 28, 2020

Sarpy County MUST Cut Property Taxes and Spend Less on Education

I moved from Sioux Falls SD to the Omaha Nebraska area in 2004. My family moved for better employment opportunities and it's been a good move! We love the wonderful people of the heartland states, my husband was born and raised in the great corn forest of Iowa, and Omaha is a great heartland city with a vibrant economy. We love the God fearing patriot culture of this state and we have made it our home. We'd like it to be our forever home, but we have started to consider a move for one reason, taxes! As much as I love Nebraska, and I love Sarpy county, the extremely high property taxes may drive our family to move to a more fiscally responsible heartland state.

Not all Nebraskans suffer under extremely heavy property taxes, the rates are highly variable throughout the state, but for those living in the Omaha and Lincoln metro areas property tax rates are well above the national average. In Sarpy County where I live, the County has the highest property tax rate of any Nebraska county! The average effective property tax rate in Sarpy County is 2.11%, compared to the 1.08% national average. That puts Sarpy County among the top 25% of counties in the United States! Sarpy County is ranked 132nd of the 3143 counties in order of median property taxes.

Compared to our property taxes in South Dakota, it was a shock when we moved to Nebraska. Our property taxes were more than double what they had been. Not only did South Dakota have MUCH lower property taxes the state had no income tax as well. You may be wondering if their sales tax was super high, nope, even sale tax is higher in Omaha than in Sioux Falls, SD. With so much less in the public coffers was the state a dumpy place to live? NO! It's a lovely heartland city, beautiful city parks, downtown areas, bike trails, nice libraries and public pools. 

Moving to Omaha, paying MUCH higher taxes, having no free access in Sarpy County to the city library and less in the way of city parks and services, left me wondering where all the tax money was going? Despite these disappointments, Omaha had a vibrant employment economy and we loved the warmer temps, city infrastructure, and we continued to love being in the heartland.

In 2012 my family made a temporary move for employment development, we moved to the DC area metro. It was a HUGE culture shock and an even bigger shock to the pocket book, but despite much higher housing costs we found that Maryland's property taxes would be significantly less then what they had been in Nebraska. So even though we more than doubled the house cost our monthly payment only went up a little. 

Though we were living in one of Maryland's most wealthy counties, among the most wealthy and expensive counties in the country, our property tax rate was only 0.93% and compared to the 2.11% property tax rate of Sarpy County it felt like we were getting a good tax deal. Of course we came home to Nebraska as soon as our career goals were achieved, after all, Nebraska is home to us, but now, as we approach retirement and look at our overall tax burden and compare Nebraska taxes to other conservative heartland states we must seriously consider moving again.

Today my husband shared with me a Facebook posting from the Sarpy County Board releasing the 2021 budget projections and the county was "selling" the good deal we are all getting out of our taxes. They made the point that though we have high property taxes only a very small portion of our taxes go to county administration. It provided this graphic for the breakdown of property tax spending:

I was appalled at the comments on the thread. So many compliant residents expressing gratitude for the information shared without any comment on what is completely unacceptable levels of taxation in our county. Taxes in Sarpy MUST come down and the only way that is going to happen is if citizens demand it. I hope that some clear talk about education spending and it's very poor association with attainment will help my fellow Sarpy County residents push back against excessive school funding and bring taxation down.

It is all too easy, when the graphic is presented this way, for residents to resign themselves to their high tax burden telling themselves its a necessary cost so children in their community can get the best education possible. The education lobby and politicians have done a very effective job convincing most Americans that more money in education equates to higher quality and better overall attainment but the facts don't back this assertion in the least. I've studied education policy, spending, and attainment for more than a decade and one thing that stands out in my research is how weak the connection between education spending and attainment are. 

To demonstrate why Sarpy County residents can support lower spending in local schools without sacrificing educational outcomes, let's start by taking on the "established orthodoxy" that money equates to better educational outcomes. 

Throwing money at the problem is exactly what we have been doing in ever increasing amounts over the past 50 years and education attainment has remained flat during that time. The U.S. spends approximately 700 billion dollars (local, state, and federal) a year in K-12 education. 56.6 million children attend K-12 in the US, divide that evenly and we spend approximately $12,368 per student per year for public school students. (That number is actually higher because not all school age children attend public schools.) Sarpy County's per pupil spending is right at the national average at $12,574.75, but there is a significant disparity among the different school districts in the county and no clear evidence that greater spending is the factor in attainment.

Here’s a comparison of per pupil spending and academic rankings among Sarpy County School Districts:

In Sarpy county there is more than a $5000 disparity in per pupil spending between number one and two ranked schools in the county, and the higher ranking school is spending more than $5000 dollars less per student. You see similar disparities throughout the metro area. Elkhorn School District ranks first in Nebraska on standardized testing and has a per pupil spending of $10,369 while Omaha Public Schools ranks near the bottom of school districts in the state of Nebraska and spends $17,549 per pupil per year. We can see this same phenomenon play out in states across the United States, and between states. Take a look at how Sarpy County compares to similar counties in states ranking in the top 20 states in the US for educational performance.

The thing that stands out the most in this chart is how high Sarpy County taxes are compared to the other states. All of the districts I chose to compare operate school systems in areas with higher cost of living, some much higher, and still they operate their school systems for thousands less then Sarpy County. I chose these counties in these states because they all have solid education systems, they are suburban districts inside major metro areas, and there is some variety in the political leadership of these counties.

The two most progressive east cost counties I threw into the chart, Montgomery County Maryland and Fairfax County Virginia, are among some of the wealthiest counties in the country and their cost of living is well above the national average. These districts have to pay their teachers much more than Nebraska because their teachers need much more for the same quality of life. They have to spend far more to build and maintain school buildings. Just about everything needed to operate districts in the DC metro are more expensive then the comparable cost of living and operating school in Nebraska, yet they provide for their schools with less per pupil spending then Springville Platteview schools in Sarpy County. Springville Plattview schools, Bellevue Public Schools, and Omaha Public Schools all spend more per pupil than Fairfax County Public Schools, a district that ranks among the top school districts in the country.

Notice the Denver suburb county of Colorado Springs Colorado and Salt Lake County in Utah rank 10th and 11th on the US News and World Report rankings but spend the lowest per pupil of those counties I compared. These counties are also highly desirable suburbs for their areas and have among the lowest property taxes in this comparison.

If you look at the overall education spending per state (and this will contain averages across all districts in that state) you will see that all the states I compared, except for Maryland, are in the bottom half of states in school spending but they all rank in the top 20 in attainment. Notice that Utah ranks 10th in attainment in the US and spends dead last in per pupil spending. Nebraska ranks 18th out of 50 for per pupil spending. We can do better, and yes, I mean we can prove our conservative ideals and provide a top quality education while spending less per pupil.

With property taxes twice what they are in these other high performing states we can do better and we must bring down our county taxes. One thing is certain, if Sarpy doesn't significantly reduce the property tax burden our family will not retire in this state. I wonder how many more retirees who would otherwise fund Nebraska's public schools will choose to move elsewhere because of the extreme property tax rates of our county?


  1. For such a time as this, Stephanie.

    I didn't realize you had returned to the Omaha Metro. Do you know Kimberly Fletcher, founder and president of Moms for America? She's a local mom who has homeschooled eight children. Kimberly's work helped truth to prevail during the Kavanaugh hearings. On the air, Fox News' Martha McCallum asked Kimberly if she found Christine Blasey-Ford's claims credible. Kimberly said that Blasey-Ford's account, while compelling, lacked facts and witnesses needed to be considered credible. Kimberly's group working with Concerned Women for America and other allies helped to change the narrative on the hill.

    MOEC, Metropolitan Omaha Education Consortium, deserves your attention. Area school districts seemed oddly deferential to this group even as, at least as recently as December 13, 2019, a member of the public trying to attend a meeting was chased out.

    The Learning Community is a money pit. Councilmember Tonya Ward continuously works to expose the empire-building activities that disconnect spending from increased attainment.

    Warrior for literacy Clarice Jackson was recently recruited to fill a vacancy on the LC Council. She's recognized internationally as an uncompromising force for good.

    I'm grateful to see you apply your skill sets to our local education issues.

    1. I’m glad to be back... but I’m not sure how much fight is in me now days 😂... I homeschool my youngest, and my oldest is in college. In the intervening years I’ve organized two homeschool co-ops and I’m currently serving on the board of a new homeschool network (umbrella group) in the Omaha metro. There is so much reform needed in education, but unfortunately I’ve become convinced that fixing it from the inside out is not going to work. I think the only way to reform is to make public schools compete and let go of the reigns of control so that there is real school choice.

      Read Dr. Thomas Sowell’s new book on Charter Schools and you’ll see what perspective I’m coming from. We could have much better schools for less money if we had freedom in education.